Food Trucks

As More Food Trucks Go Brick & Mortar, the Houston Scene Evolves

This week's cover story (online tomorrow and in this week's print edition) looks at five exciting new food trucks that have opened in Houston in the past year and at how the local food truck scene is evolving.

Three or four years ago, a new wave of gourmet food trucks were just starting to pop up around town. They didn't necessarily eclipse the classic taco trucks that still dominate areas like Long Point Road and East Downtown, but they did make a big impression on the Bayou City.

Now, several years after the initial influx, it seems a new truck is popping up every week. It's cheaper than starting a restaurant--that's the reasoning provided by most mobile chefs--and it allows the freedom to create something new every day or every few days. At restaurants, where a chef is generally serving a greater number of people and planning further in advance, the menu needs to needs to be more constant. On food trucks, where chefs are serving fewer people (most of the time) and working with less storage space, new specials can be created daily. And when they run out, they're out.

Many chefs will tell you a food truck isn't the ultimate goal, though. They want to open restaurants, and food trucks are merely stepping stones on the way to a full fledged eatery.

"I think the honeymoon phase for food trucks is over," says Justin Turner, owner of Bernie's Burger Bus. He'll be opening his first brick and mortar restaurant in the next couple of weeks, after starting his first food truck nearly four years ago. Since that initial school-bus-turned-food-truck launched, Turner has opened two more trucks and a truncated version of the mobile eatery inside Reliant Stadium.

"It was completely different than it is now," Turner says of the Houston food scene when he hit the road for the first time. "I think the new has worn off. People realize the challenges and there's a lot of disappointment that comes with food trucks."

That disappointment is felt by the owners, who may not be able to achieve success as quickly as they'd like to, as well as the customers who, Turner says, seek reliability from an eatery. Weather, mechanical issues and schedule changes can all cause food trucks to cancel appointments or relocate, leaving customers to think they're unreliable. Why go out in search of a truck that may or may not be there when you could go to a restaurant instead?

Turner admits that though his food trucks have been very successful, he never intended to have a fleet of three and a veritable burger empire. His intention was to market himself, which he's clearly done well, in spite of initial issues with city regulations and the constantly evolving nature of the industry.

"I've changed the strategy for how I use the trucks completely," Turner says. It's just not the same anymore. Food truck parks are a new thing as of a year ago. The people who organize and run them overbook all the time, so we've literally quit doing stuff like that and moved into catering and requests and one-off events at office complexes. I've had to adapt over the years."

He doesn't think the food truck culture in Houston is moving forward as much as it is moving in different directions. He mentions trucks like The Waffle Bus, Good Dog Houston, H-Town StrEATs and Koagie Hots, along with Bernie's Burger Bus, of course, as ones that have experienced continued success (H-Town StrEATs is also opening a restaurant soon). But Turner credits that to good concepts and business plans rather than a great climate for food trucks.

In a recent article by Katharine Shilcutt for Houstonia Magazine, Matt Opaleski of H-Town StrEATs called food trucks a fad, while Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza Truck said he'd be worried about opening a food truck right now because "the novelty wave has worn off."

Turner, like much of the old guard, seems to share that attitude.

"Some people think the food truck is going to be their end all be all, that they'll retire on the money they've made from a food truck," he says. "Let them do that. I feel like I've got the best grasp I can get on this."

Tomorrow, check out this week's feature story on some of the new food trucks that we think will be the cream of this year's crop.

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Kaitlin Steinberg